The Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, assured Africa’s scientific community that just as the continent had defeated colonial and racial oppression, so too would it overcome the novel coronavirus.

Dr Nzimande was speaking at this year’s virtual Africa Day event, which took place on Monday, 25 May under the theme, “COVID-19 and Africa’s future development: Opportunities and challenges.” The virtual dialogue was organised by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and the Africa Institute of South Africa (AISA), which forms part of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC).

The Minister was joined by the science and technology ministers of Zimbabwe and Uganda, Prof. Amon Murwira and Dr Elioda Tumwesigye, and the Commissioner of the African Union Division of Human Resources, Science and Technology, Prof. Sarah Anyang Agbor. Speakers from other institutions also participated, discussing various African initiatives, including the use of indigenous knowledge, to combat the coronavirus.

While Africa has so far not experienced the high infection and mortality rates seen in many other parts of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic remains a major threat to the continent’s health systems.

Call for a unified African response

There was general consensus at the event that Africa needs to be instrumental in developing its own solutions to the challenges it faces, including COVID-19.

“COVID-19 stands as a reminder on this Africa Day that Africa’s unity is the primary instrument for a continent-wide renaissance through which we will achieve the Africa we want,” said Dr Nzimande.

“Even at the height of colonial oppression, we never carried ourselves as helpless victims, but instead we stood up to fight to change our situation. That is the same spirit and determination we need now to confront COVID-19.”

The Minister said South Africa was committed to supporting pan-African cooperation on vaccine trials and vaccine manufacturing, and would use its vaccine manufacturing capabilities and efforts to strengthen Africa’s capacity to develop and manufacture reagents, test kits, point of care tests, and DNA extraction tools, all of which were becoming increasingly difficult to import.

According to Dr Nzimande, South Africa is also significantly ramping up its multidisciplinary scientific capacity to deal with pandemics.

“There is indeed strong evidence that there is a strong relationship between the destruction of our environment, climate change and the emergence of pandemics. Therefore, as a continent we have the double challenge of intensifying our struggle to protect the environment as we also build our scientific capacity to fight climate change and better handle future pandemics.”

COVID-19 Africa Rapid Grant Fund

The Minister used the platform afforded by the Africa Day celebrations to announce the establishment of the COVID-19 Africa Rapid Grant Fund. The National Research Foundation (NRF), working with the DSI, has leveraged funds from partners in Canada, Sweden and the United Kingdom in support of the fund, which will have a budget of R90 million. The fund will support COVID-19 research cooperation in Africa, capacity-building for science engagement and communication, as well as scientific advice for governments.

South Africa is also co-investing, with the European Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership, in supporting African regional health research networks to respond to the pandemic.

“Our fight against COVID-19 must transcend national borders, because this epidemic knows no borders. We therefore need to build solidarity and use each other’s strengths by collaborating more and building stronger ties than ever before,” Dr Nzimande said.

The African Union’s Prof. Sarah Anyang Agbor welcomed South Africa’s efforts to look locally to research and develop vaccines to combat the coronavirus.

“The message translates to a need for Africa to look within its context and preempt the future. We need to encourage public-private partnerships and a reconfiguration of our strategies to better respond to man-made and natural crises,” said Prof. Agbor, emphasising the need to respond to the pandemic collectively, in the spirit of ubuntu.

Prof. Agbor cited several interventions that the African Union had put together to respond to COVID-19, including the establishment working groups to study the socio-economic impact of the virus, particularly its impact on food and nutritional security, as well as the use of African natural medicines to treat patients with COVID-19.

“Indeed, we need to invest more in science, technology and innovation to realise the Africa we want by 2063,” Prof. Agbor said. “We need engagement, inclusivity and collaborative actions more than ever before.”